Stephan McCormick and I conducted a portion of this interview over email, which means that Stephan is now officially writing about Sweatpants Wedding. I consider this a positive development for two reasons:
(A) Writing about Sweatpants Wedding, considered from one point of view, is but a small step away from actually working on Sweatpants Wedding, which is exactly what Sweatpants Wedding creator Tom Dibblee and I want Stephan to do.
(B) Tom and I have found that writing about Sweatpants Wedding is so enjoyable that we plan never to stop.
The extent to which item (B) is a cause for celebration, of course, is up for debate. My hope is that enjoyment leads to motivation leads to inspiration leads to the creation of a publishable Act 2. My worry, however, is that Stephan finds that he likes writing about Sweatpants Wedding more than he ever liked working on Sweatpants Wedding, and that will leave us with three writers-about-Sweatpants-Wedding and no prospects for progress on the play itself.
Either way, Stephan’s fresh in from a film festival in Texas, and he told me all he could think about down there were Trop readers and how much you’re counting on him. Ladies and gentlemen, we have momentum. Enjoy.
JAKE DE GRAZIA: So you guys are in Milledgeville, drinking vodka and chocolate milk. You hear the idea. You dig it. And you’re like: I can help with this. I can write some music.
STEPHAN MCCORMICK: That’s the way ideas worked in Milledgeville. They’d start at Tom’s house, or they’d start at Metropolis, or they’d start at Roger’s. They’d start most likely on somebody’s porch. And then they’d continue to ferment at the bar, drinking pitchers of cheap beer for four dollars a pitcher. In the 21st Century. (Stephan pauses to give Jake a moment to appreciate Milledgeville’s affordability.) And we’d keep talking and fleshing it out and fleshing it out. And, then, when I actually started writing the songs, I had to go all-in. All-in like my whole self. Not like all-in money, all-in chips. But just like all-in inside of me. And Tom had really fantastic clever ideas, but once I started writing the songs, I lost a lot of them, because, you know, one idea at a time.
JDG: Is all-in like that always your process?
SM: No. Songs I’d written in the past were often lyrics first, chords second. I’d sing something I thought sounded cool. I’d find something on the guitar that fit with the words. And everything would start, you know, interacting from there. With Sweatpants, I began with a rough outline—maybe not so much an outline as a list of what I needed to accomplish. Very basic, something like: First song: introduce cast. Second song: explore best man and groom. Etc. I knew there needed to be big personalities and weak personalities and love triangling. The details, many of which were Tom’s, and many of those I was in the process of forgetting, would be written in the lyrics. Once that was out of the way, l needed something like the shell of a song to attract me creatively and suggest a beat and a melody. So I downloaded samples and sound banks and loops from the internet, as much as my hard drive would hold. I’d build and build and delete and build. And when I started getting excited about what I was creating, I’d infer a melody from the timeline while mumbling incomprehensibly until I had words clever and catchy enough that I wouldn’t be embarrassed to show people, lyrics that a poet could show a poet and maintain face. And all this was possible because I’d spent the previous three years listening to nothing but Bob Dylan in my car. I’d listen to Dylan to get my writing started at school. I’d listen to Dylan at night. I’d fingerpick Girl from the North Country to whomever would listen. I’d sing it if I were drunk. And I learned things about internal rhyming and working with consonants to elevate the music nature of words. Quite useful to me and vital for Sweatpants Wedding. Listen to Tambourine Man again, and you’ll know what I mean.
JDG: How was your Sweatpants Wedding writing process different from your poetry process?
SM: Writing a poem is writing a poem. Writing for Sweatpants was producing music and writing lyrics for a musical to be performed. As I said, Sweatpants songs started with an outline, a purpose, and whatever funny details I could remember. A poem, for me, begins with a rhythm, an image, or a thought, and then a line shape or some other formal constraint. It’s not often I know the end of a poetic sentence when I start writing a line, but a Sweatpants Wedding song has to be true to the larger Sweatpants vision.
JDG: Did the experience of writing a future hit musical change your poetry at all?
JDG: We’re going to make a note here that this is an extremely long pause.
SM: When you read my poems you think the person writing them is you know morose more often than he should be. Don’t get me wrong: It’s not like maudlin high school stuff. It’s just that I consider Philip Larkin and Rachel Wetzsteon my cornerstones of poetic influence. And you know, in Sweatpants Wedding, I think I have a lot in common with Grandma. Though of course, I’m really really young compared to Grandma, and some of the realizations that I think the bride and the bridesmaid have about marriage are things that I was thinking about in my own life…
(If you’re wondering what realizations the bride and bridesmaid have, I’m with you. I, Jake, like you, and like everyone in the world except Stephan, have only read Act 1 of Sweatpants Wedding, and Act 1, as far as I can tell, is pretty much just a mildly vulgar song about an impossibly informal wedding.)
SM: But I could never write about marriage in my poetry. The themes are just all… I couldn’t do it. I mean not right now I couldn’t write about that. Or at least I wouldn’t want to. But with Sweatpants Wedding I was so much freer. And, at the time, it was a lot more fun for me to write than the morose poetry. That’s what I’m trying to say. Did my poetry change because of Sweatpants Wedding? Probably not. But certainly Sweatpants Wedding changed because of my poetry. No, changed is the wrong word. Sweatpants Wedding happened because of my poetry. The poetry stayed the same.
JDG: That’s too bad. I assume Sweatpants Wedding would improve poetry. Maybe it will over the long haul.
SM: Oh I’m not saying it won’t improve poetry. But I’m saying as far as what I was writing at the time, it didn’t really change it. At least not in ways I noticed.
JDG: You didn’t write poems about sweatpants or weddings is what you’re saying.
SM: No, I didn’t. (Stephan pauses, frowning.) You know I guess I wasn’t laughing enough in my poems. And Sweatpants Wedding was an opportunity I just had to grab, for my own emotional well-being.
(Stephan has requested that I remove a portion of the interview here. “It’s too sad,” he says.)
JDG: You mentioned that you feel a connection with Grandma. Does that mean when you put the play on, you’ll want to play Grandma?
SM: Haven’t we talked about that?
JDG: I’ve never talked to you about that.
SM: Tom and I must have. I think we talked about Shakespearizing a couple of these roles—actually it’s more like Elizabethan Theaterizing—just you know fucking with the genders of the actors and stuff like that. And yeah I could totally play Grandma. But you know if I’m being honest, I have something in common with all of the characters, even the groom, you know what I mean?
JDG: Tell me what you mean. What do you have in common with the groom?
SM: Well I mean we’ve all felt—or I hope we’ve all felt—that feeling where you’re on top of the world because you’re with someone who you think is stellar, someone who makes you really excited. Because she’s beautiful—or he is—and impressive and just, you know, great. But, at the same time, you have a fiery libido, and so you’re still able to look around, and it’s voracious. And when you’re with someone like that and you’re excited about it, and you’re just insatiably excited in general, it sort of teems your reality. It makes everything sexualizied. It’s that hot first month or whatever. And I just kinda remembered how that was, and it was pretty easy to write him, the groom. It had been a while since I’d felt that, and it was fun just kind of embodying him. Plus I think his song is pretty clever. I really like his song a lot. And I think, when you listen to it, you’ll feel how excited I was to be embodying him.
JDG: You really love Sweatpants Wedding, don’t you?
SM: I really love it. Deep down I feel like it’s the coolest shit ever, you know? And, like, I force people to listen to the songs sometimes. I put them in the car. And I’m always kind of embarrassed to do this, and not every idea I have when it comes to women and dating is the best one, but opportunities come up, and I can’t help it, and I’m like, Hey listen to this thing I did. It’s like the emo cliche guy who records ballads on his iPhone and guilts you into listening to one that’s like ten minutes long, and it bores the shit out of you, but you want to sleep with him later, so you’re just like, Ah, that was great. But these songs aren’t like that. They’re really good, and I want people to listen to them.
JDG: You don’t think people tell you Sweatpants Wedding is really good just to sleep with you?
SM: No one has done that. This is more like, I tell you it’s good and whether it is or isn’t, I hope you still want to sleep with me.
JDG: Has it backfired?
SM: I don’t know.
SM: I don’t know. I’m always just happy to have someone listen, you know what I mean?
Momentum, I said. Unstoppable forward progress. And, next week, by popular demand, either an interview with a skeptical reader or, if Stephan has time, Act 2.
Jake de Grazia is Trop's Musical Theater Correspondent.
Stephan McCormick lives in Los Angeles.